'There is no future for us': Rohingya refugees given little protection in India

Fears are growing amid India's Rohingya refugee community that they will be deported back to Myanmar, which is under military control, after Indian government officials reiterated their stance that the Rohingya are "illegal foreigners."

Human rights groups believe there are about 40,000 Rohingya in India

A man walks past rows of makeshift tents at the New Delhi camp where more than 50 families of Rohingya refugees live, amid growing fears they will be deported. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The heat bears down on Mohammad Salimullah as he trudges through the makeshift camp in the southeast part of India's capital. It has been his family's home for 10 years, ever since they escaped a campaign of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state. 

"We never imagined leaving our country and coming to India to live in these uncertain conditions," said Salimullah, 36. "In Myanmar, we were living in oppression. Here, you could say we are living a life of freedom — but look at our situation."

The father of two stooped to pick up a neighbour's crying toddler, soothing him as he described to CBC the squalid conditions of the improvised refugee settlement in New Delhi that more than 50 families belonging to Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority call home.

A young boy, one of thousands of displaced Rohingya children who can't get a proper education, waits in a long line for clean water to take back to the makeshift refugee camp in New Delhi, which has no toilets or running water. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The camp consists of tents cobbled together with scraps of old sheets, tattered tarps, bamboo sticks and whatever else the adults could scrounge. It has no running water, only intermittent electricity and little protection from the elements. 

"Our young suffer from diarrhea and frequent vomiting," Salimullah continued. "The future of our children is bleak." 

It's also precarious. The makeshift camp has been in Delhi's Kalindi Kunj area for 10 years, but numbers swelled in 2017. That's when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar that the United Nations described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," and crossed into neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and India.

Mohammad Salimullah worries about the 'bleak' future of the children in the refugee camp, including his own, aged eight and 12. He filed an appeal to the Indian Supreme Court arguing that the Rohingya deserve to stay in the country because their lives are in danger if they are deported back to Myanmar. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The more than 250 people living at the Delhi camp carry official refugee status cards issued by the United Nations, meant to offer protection from arbitrary detention. But that means little to Indian authorities.

The Indian government considers the Rohingya "illegal foreigners," and officials have repeatedly stated they wish to deport the refugees to Myanmar, even after the military staged a coup to seize power in February 2021, plunging the country into further violence.

A large stateless population 

On Wednesday, Tom Andrews, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told the international body's human rights council that conditions for the country's 54 million people have gone from "bad to worse to horrific" since the military took control. 

He added that "five years after a genocidal campaign was launched against them, the Rohingya continue to face discrimination, repression and human rights abuses each and every day." 

The UN considers Rohingya Muslims both the most persecuted minority in the world and one of the world's largest stateless populations, denied citizenship for decades in their native country. 

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled a campaign of violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military in October 2017, crossing the border into Bangladesh to make their way to refugee camps. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Estimates vary widely, but human rights groups believe there are some 40,000 Rohingya in India, at least half of whom are registered as refugees with the UN's Human Rights Commission.

The threat of eviction from India flared up again last month, when a senior federal minister tweeted that the refugees living in Delhi would be provided housing, only to have his own government deny that offer hours later. 

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government reiterated that the Rohingya Muslims are considered illegal immigrants, and stated that they should be moved to detention centres to await deportation.

That same day, Aug. 17, the party's national spokesperson, Gautav Bhatia, described the Rohingya as a "threat to national security" and said the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi "has a clear policy that there will be no compromise on national security."

WATCH | Rohingya refugees in Delhi, India, fear they'll be driven out:

Rohingya refugees in Delhi fear expulsion

8 months ago
Duration 2:25
The Indian government has threatened to deport Rohingya refugees who have been living in a tent city in Delhi, since being expelled from Myanmar in 2017.

Following the violence in Myanmar in 2017, Salimullah filed an appeal on behalf of his community to India's Supreme Court, arguing that the Rohingya deserve to stay in the country because their lives would be in danger if they were deported back to Myanmar. It was rejected in April 2021, paving the way for the Indian government to choose to pursue detention and deportation.

A sense of desperation, mingled with fear, permeates the Delhi camp, said Abdul Karim, who is just shy of 17 and came to India when he was five years old. 

Rohingya refugee Abdul Karim, 16, is looking for a job, but he said nobody wants to hire him because he doesn't have any official documents or status. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

"My whole journey, my whole life, has been as a refugee. So I'm feeling very bad. And I think there is no future for us," he told CBC. 

"Whenever our people go to find work, they're denied because they [are told], 'You are not Indian and you don't have documents, so we cannot provide you a job.'" 

Questions of safety

The discrimination Karim feels also pains Mizan, 20, who lives in a neighbouring tent with her parents and two younger siblings, aged five and seven. 

She said it's distressing to hear local leaders refer to the Rohingya refugees as "terrorists" or "insurgents" when many have been in India for years and just want to live in peace.

Mizan has always dreamt of becoming a doctor, but she knows that without citizenship papers, or a feeling of security in India, that dream will never come true. 

Mizan, 20, shares a narrow makeshift tent in the Delhi camp with her parents and two younger siblings. It pains her that, without citizenship documents, she can't finish her schooling and fulfil her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

"One of the biggest struggles is, as soon as we start earning and making ends meet, we have incidents like fires breaking out," the 20-year old said. She was referring to fires in 2018 and 2021 that started at night and ripped through the camp, destroying her family's tent and many others. 

"My schoolwork, my notes, my books were all destroyed." 

She called it "soul-crushing," because she and her family expected life to be so much better in India. 

The country is not a signatory to international laws such as the UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which protect the rights of refugees to seek asylum and shield them from being sent back to a country where their lives are in danger.

Experts say that, coupled with the fact that India does not have an overarching national policy on refugees, contributes to an ad hoc system that can be bent at will by the Indian government of the day, with decisions often made based on the religion of individual refugee groups. 

"The absence of policy or absence of a law has basically helped the government of India to adopt discriminatory policies and put all refugees at risk," said Suhas Chakma, director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group, a New Delhi think-tank that tracks potential human rights violations. 

A 'hard-line, security-centric approach'

Chakma pointed to the warm welcome Tibetan and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have received in India, in stark contrast to the narrative around the Rohingya, a Muslim community.

"The government of India is taking a very hard-line, security-centric approach [with the Rohingya], despite having no concrete evidence [of a national security risk]."

A Rohingya refugee walks past a half-burnt mosque after a fire destroyed his makeshift New Delhi camp in June 2021. It was one of several fires to hit Rohingya refugee settlements in India in that year alone. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

It's left the families in the squalid camp in Delhi feeling helpless and desperate. 

"It's our kismet, our plight," Mohammad Salimullah said, with resignation, even on a rare day when a local fishmonger passed by, with fish that reminded many of the home to which they wish to return. 

But horrifying memories of the violence and persecution at the hands of Myanmar's military still haunt them.

"We saw our brothers and sisters being killed and hacked in Burma," Salimullah recalled. 

"We are living [in India] legally," he said. "We are humans. We have the right to live in peace."


Salimah Shivji


Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.